The 15 Steps to Building Character

“I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to your soul.” -- Socrates

When’s the last time you thought about your character? Few of us ever spend time building this important part of our lives, focusing instead on things we know we’ll be judged on, like our appearance, popularity, and career.

To re-awaken my need to build my own character, I regularly read a section from David Brooks’ The Road To Character, where he lays out what he calls a “Humility Code,” a list of fifteen steps towards a more virtuous and mature life. While Brooks isn’t writing from a Christian perspective, I read the themes of the gospel into this code in order to point me towards the source of true character change: Jesus Christ.

(FYI: these are his headings and my comments).

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.

If we want to build character, you first have to change what you’re living for. While everyone else tells you to live for pleasure, great lives are driven by a struggle for moral virtue. Living for happiness is too small of a goal, and will never compare to the gratitude and joy that come from a life lived with strong character.  

2. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures.

If we live our lives in pursuit of holiness, then you’re implying that we’re not already holy. All of us have an inner bent towards selfishness and overconfidence, and we too quickly pursue empty and short term desires that help ourselves and hurt others. We all have a skewed view of ourselves, which causes us to exaggerate our strengths and overlook our weaknesses.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also tremendously endowed.

Even though we do have flaws and weaknesses, we each possess an internal moral compass that opens our eyes at times to these problems. And despite our shortcomings, we have the ability to improve and grow.

4. In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue.

Brooks defines humility as “having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos.” Humility reminds us that we’re not self-sufficient and need to both rely on others, and admit that we’re not the most important person in the universe.

5. Pride is the central vice.

We aren’t naturally humble because of our pride, which blinds us to our flawed nature, making us unable to see our weaknesses and causing us to think we’re better than we actually are. Pride also cause us to work to prove we’re better than everyone else, and makes us think we’re in control of our own lives.

6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.

While our culture worships external achievements, the inner struggle against our moral failings is the most important battle we will fight. While sin will always be a part of our lives, we can choose to keep battling against it.

7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.

Character, what Brooks defines as a “set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness,” comes about when we confront our inner flaws and shortcomings. Character doesn’t get built all at once, but gets engraved onto our inner lives through the tiny actions and decisions of day-to-day life. Your always building your character, whether good or bad, and if you build poor character, your life will eventually bear the consequences.

8. The things that lead us astray are short term--lust, fear, vanity, and gluttony; while the things we call character endure over the long term--courage, honesty, and humility.

If you want to build character, you need to have the discipline to resist short term pleasure to instead pursue healthy, long term values. People with character take the long view towards life, and build stable beliefs and connections to the world that will pay off down the road.

9. Since individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception, no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.

If you try to become a person of character on your own you will fail, since our pride, selfishness, and self-deception are too strong for any of us to individually tackle. If you want to build character, you need outside help, from God, your friends, your family, and cultural tradition. As we wage our personal battle against ourselves with others, we encourage each other and grow stronger together.

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace.

Despite our best intentions, and even with the assistance of others, all of us will fail in our moral struggle. It is in these moments of failure and weakness that we can admit our need for others, and receive their grace, in the form of love, encouragement, and forgiveness.

11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self, since it is only by muting the sound of your own ego that you can see the world clearly.

If we never give up our own pride and self-sufficiency, we’ll never listen or be open to the help we need from others. Our struggle against our weaknesses requires us to see ourselves as small, and to look to greater sources of strength and wisdom.

12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty, since the world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small.

If we want to be wise, then we need to admit that we often don’t know. Life is complex and contains so many interconnected causes and effects. To act like we can understand, much less know of all of these is to overestimate our knowledge of the world. Humility teaches us the limits of our knowledge and causes us to respect those who have more experience than we do.

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.

A vocation is not about you using your work to fulfill yourself, but rather using your gifts to answer the call that the world makes on each of us. If you try to use your vocation for your own glory, you’ll always be anxious, since your ambitions will always outpace your accomplishments. If you use your work to serve the community, you’ll always be insecure and reliant on what others think of you. If you use your work to serve a vocation, you’ll focus on pursuing excellence and indirectly serve both yourself and the community.

14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.

The best leader recognizes that they share the same flaws as the people they lead, so when they misbehave, they don’t immediately condemn the people under them. Good leaders invest in gradual, long-term change, knowing that radical and sudden change rarely creates healthy situations. Leadership is not about gaining power or glory, but about helping to mediate between competing ideals and purposes.

15. The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature.

The goal of life isn’t popularity or fame, but rather maturity. Maturity is not about becoming better than everyone else, but rather being better than you used to be. The mature person is no longer fragmented, restless, or confused about where they are going in life. They can do the right thing, regardless of what the people around them think.

It’s important to note that true character change only happens when the Holy Spirit renews our lives through the resurrection of Jesus. Moral restraint never creates true heart change, but I this humility code is a really helpful reminder of our inherent sin and need for Christ.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” 2 Cor. 5:17